Every month, thousands upon thousands of people ask “What is a vulva?” We’ve put together this resource to answer some of the most common questions and to pass along some useful and important information about the vulva. The following list has a handful of things that you ought to keep in mind, think of this like a very brief owner’s manual.
1. Your vulva is not the same thing as your vagina
Some people refer to vulvas and vaginas interchangeably, but they aren’t the same thing. The vulva refers to female external genitals including the labia (majora and minora), clitoris, and the opening of the vagina and urethra.
The vagina is part of the female reproductive tract which also includes the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and cervix. It’s common to see the word vagina and other nicknames for the female anatomy used interchangeable, and it’s not as common to hear the word vulva used, which is probably why so many people are trying to answer the question “What is a vulva?”
2. Not all vulvas look alike
Like women, vulvas come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. While it’s common for vulvas to appear a certain way in mainstream porn, it’s not an accurate representation of the average vulva. In fact, there really isn’t an average or normal, all vulvas look different and that’s okay. Even as porn gets more varied and diverse, people still have certain images of “normal”, and people with certain body types are still more likely to be cast in professional films, or to get more traction for their amateur content, which feeds into the bias.
Some women opt for cosmetic surgery to change the appearance of their labia. While it’s a woman’s choice to undergo surgery, the size of your labia usually doesn’t matter from a health standpoint. For some women, a very long labia might affect quality of life and in that case, you should address any concerns to your doctor who can offer medically-sound advice.
3. Your vulva can change after pregnancy
You probably already know that your vagina goes through changes during and after pregnancy, but what about your vulva? Pregnancy hormones can affect the size and shape of your vulva with the labia becoming darker and swollen as well.
It’s normal for vaginal delivery to stretch the labia minora (smaller inner folds found within the labia majora) but don’t worry – it usually returns to its normal shape and size following childbirth.
4. Wearing a thong can cause irritation
If a cute, lacy thong is your underwear of choice you may want to reconsider. While they may add sex appeal, thongs can cause chafing on your sensitive lady bits and may increase the likelihood of a vaginal infection.
Instead, it’s recommended to opt for full coverage cotton panties. While they may not look as sexy, your vulva will thank you.
There are plenty of other things that can cause irritation and can cause your vulva to itch, here’s some more information on that topic.
5. Looking for your clitoris? Check your vulva
The clitoris is located at the top of the vulva where the inner labia meet. It might look small, but it continues internally and can be as long as 5 inches in length. Its only job is to provide pleasure, meaning it offers zero reproductive function.
With more than 8,000 nerve endings the clitoris contains double the amount found in the penis, so if you have difficulty orgasming from penetration alone (don’t worry – most women do), you may want to consider adding some clitorial stimulation to the mix. That said, it can become overstimulated so if you’ve orgasmed, it’s time to take a break or you might experience discomfort or pain.
6. Some women experience chronic vulvar pain
Vulvodynia (otherwise known as chronic vulvar pain) is persistent pain or discomfort affecting the vulva. With this condition, there isn’t an identifiable cause and it can last three months or longer.
Symptoms include persistent pain, burning, and itching of the vulva. Pain may be constant or it may come and go. Severe pain is common during sex, even sitting can be uncomfortable for women suffering from this condition. Aside from inflammation, there aren’t visible symptoms associated with vulvodynia so it can be difficult for doctors to diagnose properly.
There isn’t a known cause, but certain factors like trauma, hormonal changes, allergies, past vaginal infections, and weakness in the pelvic floor may be contributors.
Treatments include steroids, biofeedback therapy, local aesthetic, surgery, nerve blockers, and pelvic floor therapy.
7. Vulvar cancer is a possibility
Vulvar cancer isn’t something most women think about but it is a possibility. It generally appears as a lump or sore on the vulva that causes itching. While it’s most common in older women, it can occur at any age.
If it’s caught early enough, the cancer can usually be removed relatively easily. However, in severe cases, surgery can become extensive and the entire vulva may need to be removed.
Symptoms include a lump or sore on the vulva, persistent itching, pain or tenderness, bleeding that isn’t related to menstruation, and skin changes (color changes or thickening).
That’s Not It…
This isn’t a complete “owner’s manual for a vulva”, and there’s always more that you can learn. For most things, they won’t be on your radar until there’s an actual issue or concern popping up, so unless you’re just interested in learning more about vulvas for fun, you can get away with sticking to the basics and learning more as needed. Now you know what a vulva is, why not learn about how to treat a yeast infection and what a gynacologist does?